“Le Vieux Juif” was painted at a time when Picasso (1881-1973) was absorbed in depicting suffering and torment, including images of abject poverty, decrepit old age, bitter cold, starvation, and disease such as The Blind Man’s Meal, The Ascetic, The Old Guitarist, and Tragedy. All his “Blue Period” subjects seem to be suffering from unspeakable depression and, in particular, he added the theme of blindness to these motifs; a noted hypochondriac, his artistic obsession with blindness was likely due to the progressive deterioration of his the eyesight of his father, who was also an artist.
In any case, physical infirmity in general interested Picasso as a metaphor for spirituality enhanced by suffering, and he adopted a reverse allegory of the senses: sight represented by a blind man; taste by a starving man staring at an empty plate; hearing by an old guitarist seemingly deaf to the world. Though the artist himself later dismissed his Blue Period works as “nothing but sentiment,” they remain among his most compelling and popular images.
Perhaps the most monochromatic and tonally homogeneous of all his Blue Period works, the intense blue of The Old Jew is complemented only by yellowish highlights and pallid skin tones, which establish a dramatic contrast to the heavy blue shadows. The cold, soulful, and melancholy blue color accentuates the artist’s characters as the human refuse of society, people on the most extreme fringes of civilization who remain largely invisible and of no account.
I have found nothing in the literature to explain Picasso’s selection of a specifically Jewish subject as the basis for this painting – although, as commentators have noted, the lack of preparatory drawing suggests it was based not upon a real-life model; rather, it issued forth from the artist’s imagination. But there are some important clues that may be gathered from Picasso’s life and times, and I suggest three possible reasons for his choice of a Jewish subject.
First, a portion of Picasso’s gloom during this period may, as some art critics suggest, have its source in the miserable conditions in turn-of-the-century Barcelona, where cripples were a common sight. Picasso is known to have often wandered through the slums of the city where he likely witnessed, and became depressed by, extreme Jewish squalor. Barcelona – which had once been rich in Jewish history, including hosting the defense of Judaism in which Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (The Ramban, or Nachmanides) famously bested the apostate Pablo Christiani (1263) – had remained essentially uninhabited by Jews for 400 years after the Spanish expulsion ordered by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492, and the first Jews to return there at the end of the 19th century were the impoverished from North Africa and Eastern Europe.
As such, Picasso may have chosen a specifically Jewish subject as representative of a poverty-stricken member of an outcast race with whom he sympathized. He may have related to their suffering because he himself was suffering from poverty at the time and, feeling rejected and despised, may have empathized with the Jews of Barcelona. As Norman Mailer pointedly asks in Portrait of Picasso as A Young Man, his biography of the artist: “Who has ever given us more intense portraits of concentration camp victims before half of them were even born? The Old Jew can serve as an emblem for 1944 in Auschwitz.”